A New Covenant? It can be right for divorced Christians to remarry
A New Covenant? It can be right for divorced Christians to remarry
Sally's husband just walked out and left her for someone he considered prettier. He abandoned her with two young children. He shows no remorse, refuses to talk, and already has a baby with his new partner. Sally has met a soul-mate called John. He suffered a similar blow when his wife left him for someone wealthier. They both asked my advice as a Christian pastor: "Can we get married again?"
Edith and Ross were not Christians when they married. Both have changed a lot. Edith has been converted. Ross has become hardened and a drinker. Their marriage is an empty sham. They merely live under the same roof. He wants her to stay, but on his terms. That means he will continue to treat her like dirt. There is no affection, no companionship, much verbal abuse and denial of her dignity, and a regular black eye after each Saturday night on the grog. No wonder Edith sobs: "Can I get married again?"
I thought I'd seen it all until Sue rang me. She and Craig were newlyweds, just five months ago. They seemed so happy and he treated her very well. But Sue knew something wasn't quite right. He was secretive about some things and acted suspiciously. But Sue put it down to a mere personality quirk and didn't dwell on it. The horrific facts only emerged when Craig was arrested. It turns out he was already a convicted paedophile when he married her and was still offending. He didn't deny it, and assured Sue his love for her was always different and special. She was devastated. "I can't stand him touching me! He is vile! The marriage is over, but I don't want to be alone. Can I ever get married again?"
Surely we feel their pain. There are thousands like them all around us, refugees from smashed-up marriages. They have been deceived and betrayed, used and defiled. They are broken, suffering, stigmatized people.
Tragically, their wounds are often made worse by the reception they get from Christians. Over and over again I've had to pick up the broken pieces of people hurt by well-meaning but ignorant advice. It goes like this: "Divorce is a sin, always wrong, and only allowed in cases of adultery. Remarriage after divorce is forbidden, in fact it is actual adultery because divorce does not really end a marriage. In God's sight it still exists."
Worse, people are assured that this is what the Bible teaches. No wonder divorcees feel like lepers. Innocent parties are made to feel like sinners who can't be forgiven. The gospel appears odious, sentencing them to a life of solitary confinement.
At first sight the Bible's big picture on divorce and remarriage appears difficult and complex. But, in summary, it does grant Sally, Edith, and Sue the relief of divorce and the freedom to remarry. Moses deals with Sally's case in Deuteronomy 24. Men were just walking out on their wives over trivialities: someone prettier, a better cook, whatever. Divorces were a fact of life. Moses neither sanctions nor forbids them. In lamenting the hardness of men's hearts, he legislates against certain abuses involved. It is clear that even these divorces did actually end the marriages. Women like Sally are free (even expected) to remarry, so Moses refers to her at some time in the future as "another man's wife". And "her former husband" is forbidden to "take her again to be his wife". This is meaningless if Sally and her ex-husband are still actually married in God's sight.
Edith's case is covered in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. The willingness of Ross to continue the marriage on his terms is not what the text means. He should demonstrate that he can carry out normal marriage obligations. Desertion is a ground for divorce. And physical desertion is not the only desertion in mind. The technical quibble that he hasn't actually thrown her out of the house does not salvage a wrecked marriage. He hasn't thrown the dog out either. Edith is not bound to keep up appearances. A wife-basher and abuser is not a husband.
Sue's case is covered in Matthew 5:27- 32. Our Lord here comes to the aid of victims of different kinds of sexual immorality (porneia). Adultery is only one of many forms of the "sexual immorality" that Jesus refers to on this occasion. If victims like Sue remarry, they are not committing adultery. Craig has broken their marriage bond by his sexual immorality. Sue's divorce from Craig is both a legitimate and a gracious relief. Even if he'd divorced her for no good reason, she is free to remarry. What Jesus has in mind is that she is being made to suffer the stigma and consequences of adultery as if she were guilty of it. However, she is not. Jesus is not blaming her or her new husband with any sin. His point is that wrongful divorce causes atrocious injury to innocent parties. They are made to suffer the stigma of unfaithfulness. Jesus speaks in defence of these divorced and remarried people, not as their accuser.
It is time for the church to take stock. Are we well-versed in the whole big picture? Are we giving the proper gospel response to suffering people? Are we sentencing innocent victims of wretched marriages to solitary confinement without relief? People like these can get married again, and we need to tell them why, and reassure and comfort them. It is not they who have a low view of marriage, but their offending partners.
Let us beware of being entirely negative about divorce, having nothing but condemnation for divorce and divorced persons! We must grapple with the fact that God is a divorced person! He says: "For all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I sent her away and gave her a certificate of divorce" (Jeremiah 3:8). Almighty God has sued for divorce and put asunder a former unity. Obviously then, divorce is not necessarily evil in itself. Can God do evil?
Also, there is a distinction between an undesirable thing and an evil thing. Divorce is undesirable even in Jeremiah 3:8, but it is more desirable than the alternatives. Our God does some things which give him no pleasure, yet he is right and holy to do them. So, we in the church can expect the same ethical issues as we try to apply the word of God to a sin-cursed humanity. Divorce is undesirable, but it is better than many other scenarios, such as leaving a woman kissing a deceitful and unrepentant paedophile, or being treated like a punching-bag, or thrown on the scrap-heap.
We must distinguish divorce (always undesirable but not always evil) from the human behaviour which caused it (evil). It is too easy to become unbalanced and emotional and to think that Malachi 2:14 is the last word on divorce ("I hate divorce says the Lord"). We regard marriage as a sacred covenant bond meant for life, therefore we reject views on divorce that make it all too easy. However, we realise that even God has divorced, so we cannot sweep the topic aside with one simplistic quote of a text!
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